Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SEWER STINK: Scandal swamps City Hall

1)  SEWER STINK:  Scandal swamps City Hall
2)  SULLIVAN DECLARES:  For Columbia mayor

3)  FIRST TIME HONOR:  MU hosts minority medical student conference
4)  COLUMBIA COLLEGE:  Named top military-friendly school 
5)  MASSIVE METH BUST:  Rocks Centralia
6)  MIZZOU ENGINEERS:  Make blast-resistant glass
7)  HEAR YE!  HEAR YE!   Boone County Republicans Chili Supper This Friday

SEWER STINK:  Scandal swamps City Hall

COLUMBIA, 10/21/09 (Beat Bytes) -- A 150-page soap opera starring personality conflicts, inappropriate job duties, and financial confusion that has cost Columbia residents millions of dollars.

That's one way to describe documents about a so-called "sewer billing scandal" released to the Columbia Heart Beat through a City of Columbia Freedom of Information Act request.  The documents -- mostly internal memoranda and emails -- cover three years in the beleaguered life of city sewer maintenance superintendent Bill Weitkemper, a 34-year public works employee who became alarmed when he discovered a strange and costly situation in 2006:   Thousands of sewer users weren't being billed; City Hall was violating the law; and the public -- through higher rates and bond issues -- was picking up the tab. 


"Bill -- I know you well enough to not take your note as some sort of threat, but I must tell you it reads that way." 

That's Columbia City manager William Watkins, responding in an email to Weitkemper last August, shortly before city council members adopted the 2008-09 budget.   After two years of trying to right the sewer underbilling problem, Weitkemper had finally worked his way to the top of the command chain.  He was reminding Watkins of some wisdom from their former boss, city manager Ray Beck.

"I remember what Mr. Beck told me many times about making a decision," Weitkemper wrote.  "Always ask yourself, how would this look to the public?  Would the public support this decision." 

Weitkemper's concerns -- that the city council would adopt yet another budget ignorant of the decades-long problem -- seem justified.  Worries about how the public might view the problem on the cusp of a major funding vote had come up before.  The idea seems to have been:  keep public and council in the dark, so as not to upset the budget cart. 

"I've been thinking about what you said about not wanting to take the chance of upsetting voters before the sewer bond election," Weitkemper wrote in Jan. 5, 2007 email to Public Works operations manager Mary Ellen Lea.  "This billing issue could turn out to be a critical issue for that election.  The city must be very careful to be completely open with the public."

But kept in the dark, voters approved the $77 million bond issue in April 2008.  A bond is a loan, to be repaid through utility rate increases in future years.  But if all sewer users were paying their fair share, those rates needn't rise nearly as much as they have. 


Imagine a 100-unit apartment complex with one big water main supplying the whole place.  Each apartment has a shower/bathtub, toilet, bathroom and kitchen sinks -- four sewer lines each. 

One big water line in; 400 sewer lines out.  Now imagine City Hall, which controls the sewer utility, has for years only billed the apartment complex on the basis of the one water line, violating a city law that says you have to bill each individual sewer user.   Imagine the problem multiplied, to some 6,000 unbilled sewer lines across the city.  Now multiply that by several decades and tremendous growth. 

It's a big number, and City Hall's failure to collect it has cost us all in the form of higher utility rates that only keep going up.

A sewer billing problem can be fixed, and city officials have taken action, including a 2007 audit that proved Weitkemper was correct.   But the harder fix lies in a dysfunctional management culture that automatically assumes the public and our representatives -- the city council -- are too stupid to understand the way city government works. 

"City administrators call us 'The Tourists,'" a former councilman once told me.  He had heard some staffers talking about this concept in the hallway.  "Tourists are dumber than locals, and always come and go."   

Smart as they are, city administrators are encouraged to interpret the laws council passes before they follow them. 

You read that right.  Department directors at City Hall routinely interpret the law -- like little Supreme Court justices -- before they implement it.  City law is clear about how to bill for sewer charges; what hasn't been clear is how individual department chiefs have been interpreting the ordinance over the past several decades, with each new leader adding a new level of confusion and disarray. 

"I believe the method of charging for basic sewer service has been dependent on interpretations of the ordinance by Finance and UAB people," wrote Weitkemper's supervisor, Terry Hennkens, in a 4/27/2006 email. 

"I plan to tell Bill [Watkins] that these things cannot be fixed through operations, they are billing problems," wrote Mary Ellen Lea in a 12/20/2007 email to Hennkens.  "We can help with interpretation of ordinances, but we should not be the ones trying to fix billing problems."

"Does user mean dwelling unit?  Can we relate the base fee to the meters?  Still don't think this clarifies when and how we apply the base fee," city finance director Lori Fleming emailed public works director John Glascock on 9/30/2009, fully three years after Weitkemper first broached the problem.

Add clashing personalities, miscommunications, and conflicting management styles, and the mess has metastasized.  It's a mess we'll be covering in detail, in this Fall investigative series.

COLUMBIA, 10/21/09 (Beat Bytes) -- Planning advocate Sid Sullivan, who ran an unsuccessful primary campaign against southern Boone County commissioner Karen Miller last year, has formally declared his intention to seek the office of Columbia mayor.  Sullivan joins 4th ward councilman Jerry Wade and Eastside Tavern owner Sal Nuccio for the upcoming April 2010 election. 

Citing the need to tackle a broad array of citywide issues, Sullivan told the Columbia Heart Beat he wants to be "a mayor for all the people."   City Hall's focus on parks and trails "has been great," Sullivan said, "but we need to work on the basics, like crime, roads, and growth.  These are issues for everyone."

Sullivan's supporters are gathering signatures for Friday, the official petition opening day, when candidates can first deliver their nomination petitions to City Hall.   Mayoral candidates need at least 100 signatures; council candidates need 50.  For more information, read Section 122. Nominations by Petition in the Columbia city charter:

Students who want to work on campaigns and folks who want to sign petitions can contact the three candidates as follows: 

Sid Sullivan

Jerry Wade
(573) 447-0064 

Sal Nuccio
(573) 256-1500

FIRST TIME HONOR:  MU hosts minority medical student conference

COLUMBIA, 10/21/09 (Beat Bytes) --  For the first time ever, the University of Missouri School of Medicine is hosting an annual conference for the Student National Medical Association, the nation's oldest and largest independent, student-run organization for medical students of color.  Boasting some 8,000 medical students, pre-medical students, residents and physicians SNMA was established in 1964 by medical students from Howard University School of Medicine and Meharry Medical College, both traditional black colleges.

"SNMA is dedicated both to ensuring culturally sensitive medical education and services, as well as increasing the number of African-American, Latino and other students of color entering and completing medical school," says a note on the organization's website.  The conference kicks off October 30th and runs through November 1st, 2009.


COLUMBIA COLLEGE:  Named top military-friendly school

COLUMBIA, 10//21/09 (CCIS) --  G.I. Jobs magazine has named Columbia College a top school for educating former military members.  The magazine ranked the college in the top 15 percent of all schools nationwide based on military-friendly policies which include the Yellow Ribbon Program, a matching servicemembers' tuition program


MASSIVE METH BUST:  Rocks Centralia 

CENTRALIA, 10/21/09 (Fireside-Guard) --  In Columbia, bikes, pedestrians, and wheelchairs have been on recent city council agendas.  But in northern Boone neighbor Centralia, a new state law which enables municipalities to legalize golf carts on city streets was brought up to that city's Board of Aldermen and shelved for later discussion, according to the Centralia Fireside-Guard.

Also in the news:  A massive methamphetamine bust earlier this month.  Centralia Police officers arrested five people at a duplex, ending a months-long investigation.  Officers also found an active meth lab, five miles west of Centralia in rural Audrain County. The Boone County Sheriff's Department assisted. 

"This was a lab capable of easily making an ounce of pure meth every 24 hours," Centralia Police chief Larry Dudgeon told the Fireside Guard, noting that waste products posed an environmental hazard.   Among those arrested: Jebadiah Romine, 28, for distribution, possession, and maintaining a drug house within 1,200 feet of Chester Boren Middle School and Chance Elementary School.


COLUMBIA, 10/21/09 (MU News) --  Blast-resistant glass that Mizzou engineering researchers are developing may substantially reduce collateral damage from exploding bombs and natural disasters. 

With a $250,000 U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant, Sanjeev Khanna, a mechanical and aerospace engineering associate professor, and Zhen Chen, a civil and environmental engineering professor, have developed thinner and less expensive blast-resistant glass.  They tested the glass this spring by exploding a small bomb within five feet.  The glass panel withstood the blast.

Ultra-thin glass fibers embedded in plastic give the glass its strength.   Only about 25 microns thick -- half the thickness of a human hair -- the glass fibers literally have no room for defects that could lead to cracking. 

The Mizzou blast-resistant glass is less than a half inch thick and would cost a fraction of what such glass currently costs, Khanna said.  For instance, it could protect residential windows from hurricanes, flying debris, or earthquakes.


HEAR YE!  HEAR YE!   Boone County Republicans Chili Supper

Longtime local radio talk show host Tom Bradley will host/emcee the Boone County Republicans Annual Chili Supper
this Friday, October 23rd, at the Elks Lodge in Columbia (4747 E. Elk Park Drive).   Dinner starts at 6 P.M., Program begins at 7:15 P.M. 

Children's Playroom Will Be Open During the Event

Confirmed Speakers include
- Kevin Jackson, conservative author, blogger, and radio host; wrote "The BIG Black Lie",
- Keynote: Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer, 9th Congressional District*
- Congressman Roy Blunt, 7th Congressional District*, candidate for U.S. Senate
- State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, 19th State Senatorial District
- State Sen. Chuck Purgason, 33rd State Senatorial District, candidate for U.S. Senate
- State Representative Allen Icet, candidate for Missouri Auditor

*Plan to attend but are dependent on House of Representatives' schedule. Other speakers TBA.

Tickets: $12.00/person in advance; $15/person at the door; Children 3 and under free. Make checks payable to Columbia Pachyderm Club.  Tickets are also available for purchase at The Columbia Pachyderm Club meetings on Fridays at Noon at Jack's Gourmet Restaurant on Business Loop 70 (across from Westlake's at Old Hwy. 63).

You can also contact Jerry at 573-489-0106 or via e-mail at,or at

Directions to the Elks Lodge of Columbia:

- From Hwy. 63, go East, follow East Broadway/Route WW East approximately 1.5 miles, just past Cedar Ridge School (at street light), turn right onto E. Elk Park Drive.
- Then merge left to access Lodge parking

If you cannot make it, but would still like to support the Columbia Pachyderm Club, please send your non tax-deductible donation to:

Columbia Pachyderm Club
PO Box 30642
Columbia, MO 65205

Missouri United Methodist Church Youth Missions & The Center for Women’s Ministries is hosting a home-made cinnamon rolls fundraiser on October 24, from 8:30 a.m. onward.   The church is located at 204 South Ninth Street (across from Shakespeare’s).  Contact the YOUTH GROUP at (573)-443-3111. 


MORE INFORMATION about tonight's CPS Band Curriculum meeting is at these links:

Mike Martin
Blogitor in Chief
The Columbia Heart Beat


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